The First Time He Hit Her by Heidi Lemon

Reviewed by Norrie Sanders

Drained by the harrowing trial of his niece’s murderer, Michael Costigan approached Heidi Lemon to write a book about Tara. With an Honours degree in Creative Writing, Heidi had no track record as an author or crime writer. Yet she proved to be an inspired choice.

Many true crime books are about unsolved crimes or miscarriages of justice where the author has a complex and confusing stream of information to synthesize. Tara Costigan’s horrific murder was unambiguous. The murder was witnessed; the murderer pleaded guilty and was incarcerated after trial. So how to make that into a compelling read?  

Tara was a mother of two young boys when she met Marcus Rappel in Canberra late in 2013. Initially, their relationship seemed idyllic and Tara soon declared her love and became pregnant.  Her large family was welcoming to Rappel, though some members had their doubts. He came to the relationship with form, having been the subject of a Domestic Violence Order (DVO) taken out by a former girlfriend.

Rappel’s behaviour towards Tara gradually deteriorated with escalating verbal abuse. Tara remained loyal and continued to declare her love hoping that his good side would win out. Barely a year into their relationship, he secretly took up with his ex-girlfriend again, but continued his verbal and SMS tirades towards Tara. Her family started to realise that one of their own was caught in a toxic relationship.

An incident with her boys led her to evict him and, just days after giving birth to their baby, she reluctantly applied for a DVO. The same day that the order was served, Rappel purchased an axe, broke into her house and killed her in front of five witnesses, including her three children. 

The events of the murder are sensitively handled but no less chilling for that. Multiple perspectives from family and friends are carefully woven with court evidence. The tension is palpable as Tara and her family go about their business, unaware of Rappel’s volcanic reaction to the DVO.  

More than an investigation, Heidi Lemon has crafted a compelling set of human stories. There are many questions which she poses and carefully tries to answer – always thoughtful and always thought-provoking.

The author obtained background information and interviews, mostly from Tara’s family and friends. The material is at once gripping and daunting for her:

Inevitably, perhaps, the counterpoint to my anticipation is a feeling of being overwhelmed. The more voices I hear speak about Tara, the more I feel that I am looking through a telescope at a night sky, and that every patch of it I see holds stars of impossible number. Such is the universe of a single life, its scope and reach, its darkness and its bright fires. Its stretches of openness and secret forevers. [p11].

 Much of the narrative prior to the murder is constructed from SMS records and Tara’s digital images. Heidi astutely uses the images as markers of a story, forming part of a coherent social record that is achingly poignant:

The [set of images].. becomes my portal to Tara’s world… I am shown – she shows me – the glorious moments, the ones that move her to fish for her phone, the moments she wants to keep…….What a strange, terrible thing to look into the laughing eyes of a woman and know what she would not have believed. [p12]

In a lesser writer, similar musings might have been pretentious and intrusive.  She is expressing one of the appeals of the genre – piecing together a truth based on fragments and, in this case, the absence of the victim’s voice.

I think about her until my thinking becomes a kind of longing. I want to hear her voice, watch her I think – inch that impossible bit nearer to an authentic portrait of a stranger. [p11]

Her uncertainty is ours and, as she starts to see a less blurry picture, so we can start to focus. In the process, we discover a beautiful mother, much loved by a large circle of family and friends. Yet we also see her faults and failings, which forge a real person in a way that no court case or media story ever could.

Where Heidi’s investigation excels is taking us into her world of the grieving family and Heidi’s reactions to their still raw emotions. We become part of her journey into a collision of two worlds. As a victim of domestic abuse herself, Heidi can relate to Tara’s situation:  

I knew that it had to stop. Of course I did. I could hardly fail to recognise that [he] was prone to a sort of madness which was most likely to overtake him with the going down of the sun…I knew too that all I had to do to make it stop was open the door and walk out…A little bit of pain for something pure, that’s what this was. Love conquering all. [p129]

Unlike the author, Tara had not been physically abused and she continued to believe that she was not at risk of violence. 

Heidi was unable to interview the murderer, nor did she spend much time with his family. She interviewed his sister, Tanya, and the long summary seems an insightful and sensitive treatment of a delicate situation. We are privy to Heidi’s thoughts as she processes the information presented by Tanya and the result is tense and thought-provoking.   Her brother remains a shadowy and sinister figure, whose precise motivations are never able to be clarified – particularly when his courtroom statements were scarcely believable.

Speculation and expert opinion about motive are put in the context of research findings: 79% of severely abusive men become physically violent [p298] and a significant proportion of murders of women in domestic situations may not be preceded by physical violence.

Heidi interviews professionals who were associated with the trial and some who were not. She asks a professor of criminology whether the case is an anomaly, given the absence of physical violence in the relationship. Not at all, she replied; homicide is the ultimate expression of coercive control.  [p163]

The unanswerable question is: faced with a man of this sort, and with ineffective protection from the DVO, how could Tara possibly have avoided her fate? The experts and friends consulted in the book are unable to offer convincing alternatives.

The courtroom was a place of high drama which is envisaged through transcripts and interviews with prosecutors, expert witnesses, family and friends. When Heidi attends the sentencing hearing, it is as though we are suddenly thrust onto a stage and the feeling of being in the same room as this murderer is nothing short of disturbing.

Heidi’s writing is not only easy to follow, but she also has the ability to capture moods in refined phrases, as exemplified by this description of people milling around the court: Dozens of private energies seem to roam through the air. [p278]; and when the sentencing has finished: There is a sense, not so much of endings as culminations; [p296].

 The First Time He Hit Her is a story of people, abuse, justice and family.  A family that has paid an enormous price for a few seconds of violence. Heidi Lemon has crafted a fine volume that befits the family’s faith in her. It is a book that deserves to be read.

The First Time He Hit Her

[2020]

by Heidi Lemon

Hachette

ISBN 978 0 73364 376 7

$32.99; 352pp

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